A self-possessed man of letters
S Eliot was a publisher, editor and critic as well as being the most influential (some would say the best) poet of the 20th century. The lad from St Louis who became in so many ways as English as Westminster Abbey was certainly the most assimilated poet of the high modernist experimental moment.
He acknowledged his friend Ezra Pound, who edited The Waste Land into its ultimate ravishing shape, as the greater maker, he knew he could not hold a candle to James Joyce, yet he was the man who effectively invented modern literary criticism. In doing so he created a climate sympathetic to the assimilation of his own work as well as Pound’s, Joyce’s, John Donne’s and much else besides.
William Empson, the poet who was also the most brilliant analytical critic of his generation, said he was never sure how much of his own mind Eliot had invented. And it’s fascinating in this latest collection of Eliot’s correspondence to see the immensely formidable literary man ploughing through letter after letter, courteous, alert, occasionally sharp and kinder than you might have guessed.
Here he is in a letter of January 4, 1932, consoling Joyce on the death of his father. He mentions, by way of contrast, his own father’s death. Dear Joyce, I was very sorry to hear your news and much moved by your letter … [my father] died still believing I’m sure, that I had made a complete mess of my life — which, from his point of view, and possibly quite rightly, I had done.
With his mother, things had been different: “Whereas my mother lived long enough to take an immoderate pride in my accomplishment and to feel that I had done the best for myself.”
He continues: So when I suggest that possibly your father felt his life to be fulfilled in the recognition of your fame & greatness, it is not merely a conventional piece of consolatory chatter.
This gives new meaning to the idea of the thoughtful letter and it is characteristic. It seems — and this is a bit surprising — that people found it easy to confide in Eliot, partly because he was naturally patient and partly because his ethical standards, derived from the absoluteness of his religious convictions, were not in any way conventional. They had nothing at all to do with cold-shower moralism. As he says in a letter to the younger poet Stephen Spender, What really matters is not what I think about the Church today or about Capitalism or military processions or about Communism: what matters is whether I believe in Original Sin … Do you really suppose that ‘‘chastity, humility, austerity and discipline’’ as I mean them have anything whatever to do with what is taught in schoolroom chapels … I’m not concerned with how people behave, but with what they think of themselves in their behaviour; and I believe that the man who thinks himself virtuous is in danger of damnation whatever line of conduct he adopts.
Actor and biographer Simon Callow said of John Gielgud that he was modest and approachable (it was the acting that was grand). I suspect something similar was true of Eliot as a correspondent. He comes across a bit like the description of Saint Thomas Aquinas (repeated IT SEEMS — AND THIS IS A BIT SURPRISING — PEOPLE FOUND IT EASY TO CONFIDE IN ELIOT in Joyce’s Ulysses) as someone “with whom no word is impossible”. At the most literal level this applies to the bits of obscene doggerel interspersed in these letters as well as the charming Old Possum style rhymes for kids he’s writing to, one of which includes an illustrated version of How unpleasant to know Mr Eliot.
The most obvious and practical extrapolation of this is Eliot’s support for a change to the censorship laws as he tries to get a British edition of Ulysses published in Britain. But it goes far beyond this.
By this time he had created the black comic parody of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the bewitchments and dislocations of the drafts and fragments of The Waste Land, forged the liturgical agonies of Ash Wednesday and, as a convert to Anglo-Catholicism (mickery minus the Pope), was making his way towards the still, lame music of Four Quartets with its parodistic organisation, its aestheticism and its religious ecstasies, all of them almost agnostic in their expression, making sense of the business of the world. We think we know about Eliot’s Toryism and his anti-Semitism and it is fascinating to read in John Haffenden’s superb notes to these letters a quotation from Eliot’s reply in 1948 to a letter from writer Leslie Fiedler. Eliot says in his own defence that the poems in which the word “Jew” appear were published by Leonard Woolf in Britain and Alfred A. Knopf in America, both Jewish, and adds, “in short, the evidence on which you rely, dates from many years ago and the documents were not regarded at that time as anti-semitic by Gentiles or Jews”. He goes on: I realise that it must be very difficult for a young man to realise that the mass emotions of his own time and generation did not exist at an earlier time, and that they may still be quite alien to older men still alive. I recommend it, however, as a point worth sober reflection. If you could succeed in understanding the difference, and the comparative novelty of both semitic and anti-semitic hysteria, you could render great service to the appeasement of the violent and irrational passions by which the world is now torn.
Haffenden also cites Eliot saying to Pound that his anti-Semitism was an insult to Eliot’s own religion: “The latter includes the Jewish religion.” This may not convince people who want to brand Eliot with anti-Semitism but the intellectual patience may give them pause.
He is also very much aware of his “features of clerical cut”, the fact that all sorts of people see him as the worst kind of holy Joe. It’s not hard to imagine that some kind of grave grandeur of manner engendered by shyness or a covertly histrionic temperament was part of the Eliot persona, but it would be naive to imagine he was unaware of it. From his chair as editor of The Criterion he writes to the young historian AL Rowse, “Of course I know I have been called a prig, you goose; that’s how I made my acquaintance with the world.”
It’s not the dominant impression of these letters, though, which radiate a businesslike alertness in the face of the world of literature and a special interest in promoting the young and brilliant. We see Eliot publishing Spender and WH Auden, and soliciting articles on art from young Kenneth Clark, as well as contemporaries such as John Maynard Keynes.
At one point he writes to Keynes to ask if it’s true that he had said periods of inflation produced great writing and if so, could he expand on the point. In another moment he will be asking Woolf what learned rabbi might write a book about Judaism for Faber (the publisher Eliot worked for) or offering support to that Calvinist of the canonical FR Leavis when he sets up his magazine Scrutiny. This volume of letters is, of course, a much bigger book than all this might suggest, apart from anything else because the fierceness of Eliot’s privacy has gone into reverse. It is almost as if his theory of impersonality — and the violence with which The Waste Land complicates and contradicts it when you realise the encyclopedic fragments of stained glass that constitute it are the fractured impersonations of a man in a state of breakdown — has led to Eliot as the male singer in the deadly duet of the Tom and Viv story.
It’s told here as a set of tragic interpolations. Eliot goes off to America, to Harvard, with no intention of coming back to his wife Vivienne. He says to Virginia Woolf, “I can be completely happy solely by being away from Vivienne”, and we have here the famous letter about how he has been living in a Dostoevsky novel, as well as Vivienne’s terrible piteous letters asking him to come back and talking about the welcome the pusscats will give him.
Eliot’s resolve not to see her again is chilling, but we do not judge this man. He is acutely sensitive to other people’s suffering and when Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, goes mad he writes to Joyce, telling the Irishman he has had more of suffering than any man is entitled to. He recommends the best French psychiatrists and warns Joyce that their equivocation is a manner.
There are wonderfully lively moments scattered throughout this book. He says at one point that “Bertie” (Bertrand Russell, who seduced Vivienne) is one of his “lost illusions” and that he has “done evil without being big enough to be evil”. There is also a dazzling — weirdly unexpected — moment where Eliot gets Virginia Woolf, surely one of the most stately and stylish women in the history of the world, to scout around London for flats for him.
There are flashes of the depth of human pain throughout as well as massive testimony to Eliot’s self-possession. There’s the lovely moment when he says he went to a Republican rally in the US which had a lot of whiskey. He says, “the whiskey was good but the rally was under par”.
The characteristic note, however, is of kindliness, even charity. Eliot said of FO Matthiessen who wrote an early brilliant book about him, “I felt I had been some trance medium for a giant of the spirit world”. While he is in the US, a Mrs McKenna writes to Eliot enclosing her dead son’s poetry. He writes back to her saying the poems have a quality separate from the “achievement” they lack. But they have an intense purity and solitariness which is most uncommon both in poetry and in people. It seems to me to have had such a son might be better than whatever other satisfactions the world has to give.
In the course of this brief period of correspondence Eliot says, “A poet can be judged by his letters”. Look at Keats, he says, who wrote the greatest letters “Keats could write great truths and yet be frivolous.”
Eliot seems to have written only the letters he had to. None of these letters aspire to be great and yet they reverberate with feeling. Everyone interested in literature should have a look at them. is a cultural critic.
From the cover of The Letters of TS Eliot; Vivienne Eliot, the wife the poet was ‘happy being away from’, below